President Donald J. Trump has reportedly instructed his national security and intelligence staff to find a rationale for declaring Iran noncompliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement Tehran reached in 2015 with the P5+1, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. Reports suggest Trump believes the United States should withdraw from, or sabotage, the JCPOA. During his presidential campaign, Trump called the agreement “the worst deal ever negotiated.” However, in May his administration certified that Iran was broadly in compliance with its terms, while extending and even expanding non-nuclear sanctions against Tehran for its ongoing missile development and testing and support for terrorist groups and radical nonstate actors.
Trump is apparently frustrated that his team has not given him a plausible rationale for the United States to either abandon the agreement on the grounds of Iranian noncompliance or at least insist on a thorough renegotiation of its terms. He recently told The Wall Street Journal the administration had been “extremely nice” in concluding that the Iranians are living up to the agreement. He continued, “if it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.” Trump added he “would be surprised” if Iran is again found to be compliant with the terms of the deal after the next review by his administration in about three months. But what are the implications for U.S. foreign and Middle East policy should officials comply with this reported directive, and the administration scrap the deal or insist on its renegotiation?
The perspectives of Washington’s Gulf Arab allies are significant and instructive. Many Gulf Cooperation Council states were skeptical of the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, though they eventually supported the negotiations and cautiously endorsed the agreement after it was finalized. Their concerns are relevant not only because these countries are central to the realization of U.S. policy goals in the region, but even more because they are the parties most directly affected by Iran’s destabilizing behavior, which is the apparent basis for Trump’s reported instruction to his staff to find a basis for holding Iran noncompliant.
The United States and the rest of the P5+1, along with Israel, are primarily concerned with the potential emergence of Iran as a new nuclear power in the Middle East. While this outcome is also of concern to Gulf Arab countries, their national security anxieties regarding Iran are more directly linked to Tehran’s ongoing provocative conduct, especially its missile development and testing program and its support for destabilizing terrorist and militia groups in the Arab world. Indeed, their strongest concerns about the nuclear agreement were that it never addressed these activities. Their secondary concern was that the agreement could serve as the vehicle for a broader rapprochement between Washington and Tehran without a major change in Iran’s behavior, an eventuality that did not emerge under the administration of President Barack Obama and seems unthinkable under Trump. The rise of Iran as a nuclear power is a concern to them, but tertiary compared to the now moot issue of a broad security understanding between Iran and the United States, and the increasing problem of Iran’s military buildup and destabilizing conduct. Therefore, these are the countries with the greatest stake in the issues that are most frequently and ardently cited by the nuclear agreement’s critics, and that serve as the reason for Washington’s expanding menu of bilateral sanctions against Iran.
Despite these urgent concerns, Gulf Arab countries are not calling for the United States to abrogate or sabotage the JCPOA. Rather, like many other highly cautious supporters of the agreement, the consensus viewpoint among GCC countries is that it should be strictly and rigorously enforced. Yet countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among those pressing most enthusiastically for Washington to adopt an increasingly tough attitude toward Iran. Why, then, wouldn’t they welcome the rapid demise of the JCPOA?
The logic is straightforward. Whatever their reservations about the nuclear agreement, Gulf Arab countries understand that the ideal scenario for Iranian hard-liners would be for the JCPOA to collapse in the near future, with Washington being blamed by most, if not all, of the international community. This would mean that Tehran would have reached the agreement and permanently undone the international sanctions regime under Obama, only to be freed from complying with its terms under Trump, with virtually no chance that the comprehensive sanctions, particularly as imposed by China and Russia, could be resurrected. Tehran will then be free to resume nuclear weapons research and development, without the threat of coordinated, comprehensive international consequences that the agreement put into place. Any hope of restructuring broad international sanctions, which would be challenging under the best of circumstances, would be virtually dashed if Washington were perceived as having unilaterally scrapped or deliberately sabotaged the JCPOA.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker acknowledged the danger stemming from the emerging Trump approach to the agreement when he noted that it is vital that any collapse of the deal be squarely blamed on Tehran and not Washington. “You want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the U.S. because we want our allies with us,” he noted. The trouble with Trump’s apparent plan to find some way of declaring Iran noncompliant and, in effect, nullifying the agreement, is that there is every reason to believe that Iran is in fact complying with its terms. Mark Fitzpatrick has persuasively debunked the main existing claims circulating in Washington that argue that Iran is substantially out of compliance with its commitments. After all, like its six interlocutors, Tehran concluded that placing its nuclear weapons program essentially on hold for more than a decade in exchange for sanctions relief was a fundamentally rational bargain. Tehran, therefore, has no urgent reason or need to cheat on these commitments.
Corker and others have suggested that a dispute over inspections of Iran’s military facilities and undeclared nuclear sites could provide the basis for Washington to accuse Iran of being responsible for a collapse of the nuclear deal. According to The Washington Post, the Trump administration is planning on testing the “strength” of the agreement, Iran’s intentions, and, presumably and probably most crucially, the reactions of the five other members of the P5+1 to such a dispute. However, it is doubtful that many in the international community would be persuaded that such an argument – particularly if Iran is perceived as offering credible objections within the terms of the agreement or alternative proposals for addressing Washington’s concerns – would justify scrapping or thoroughly renegotiating the JCPOA. Moreover, any such quarrel could become as much of an argument among P5+1 states rather than one primarily with Iran.
The argument in favor of the JCPOA for U.S. foreign policy was, and remains, clear: Without this delay Washington and its allies would, sooner rather than later, face the untenable choice of accepting Iran’s rise as a new regional and international nuclear power or embarking on an open-ended and highly unpredictable military response to try to prevent that. The agreement forestalls this double bind of undesirable options for at least a decade. The gamble inherent in the JCPOA is that in 10 years’ time something fundamental may change. The Iranian regime could be different by then, quite possibly for the better. The regional environment may be less dangerous. Iran’s Middle Eastern rivals may be able to create, with U.S. support, a new security architecture that persuades Iran not to pursue a nuclear option when the JCPOA expires, or that can deal with the potential for a renewed Iranian push for nuclear capability in a more effective way. As Obama continuously argued, if none of these positive developments transpire, and even if negative ones emerge, the essential nature of both U.S. and Iranian options and capabilities will not be radically transformed and, at worst, Washington will be facing a similar dilemma to the one it did in the years immediately leading up to the nuclear agreement.
Iran’s destabilizing activities warrant serious concern and mandate robust policies to deter and thwart such conduct. According to the State Department, Iran is the world’s leading state supporter of terrorism and the primary force seeking to destabilize the Middle Eastern status quo. Moreover, Tehran opposes many if not most long-term U.S. policy goals in the region, and the interests of Washington’s Arab, Israeli, and even Turkish partners. But it’s hard to see how unilaterally abrogating or sabotaging the JCPOA would effectively combat Iran’s regional agenda.
To the contrary, the most likely effect of such an action would be Tehran’s return to the aggressive nuclear weapons development program that has been mothballed in recent years without serious prospects of a return to comprehensive international sanctions. And, under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine significant new deterrents being imposed on Iran’s support for terrorism or regional destabilization. The United States would have to either essentially accept Iran’s development as a nuclear power, because it would have given up the main instrument that has effectively restrained Tehran, or embark on an extremely risky, unpredictable, and potentially deeply destabilizing military gambit.
Few countries have more to lose in such a scenario than Washington’s Gulf Arab allies, which is why they have urged the United States to rigorously enforce, but not scrap, the nuclear agreement. This perspective, and the logic that underlies it, should be carefully heeded as the Trump administration weighs the consequences of declaring Tehran noncompliant with the nuclear deal without strong and compelling evidence that would be persuasive to the international community. As long as the JCPOA is in force and being implemented, Iran will not become a nuclear power and there is therefore no need for a dangerous and unpredictable military confrontation. Without it, such a conflict, or the equally alarming and unacceptable emergence of Iran as a nuclear power, could become inevitable.